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STAGE REVIEW

Turnabouts result in masterful play

CAMBRIDGE -- When the plays of Marivaux are done right, there is a heady sense of disorientation. Should we be laughing or cowering? Are we watching the work of a misanthrope or an idealist? Are we in his time, the 18th century, or our own?

The answers are all of the above in the American Repertory Theatre's masterful, tough-love adaptation of ''Island of Slaves," in which two nobles and their servants are shipwrecked on an island that makes the one in ''Lost" look like Club Med.

Just as the lord, Iphicrate (John Campion), is about to whip his Arlequin (Remo Airaldi) into shape to show him that nothing has changed in their relationship, out come five drag queens to save Arlequin and let Iphicrate know that everything has changed.

They also let the audience know that they're not watching a nice, safe play. Parading through the aisles of the Loeb space to garish disco music, they leer at our conventionality -- believe me, even if you dress for Halloween you'll look conventional next to the likes of Fena Barbitall -- and dare us to loosen up.

Normally, I hate such things, and I can't say that I was thrilled to see them trolling the aisles (fortunately, another critic was the beneficiary of a colorful kiss atop his pate). Most people don't go to the theater to be discomforted, but ''Island of Slaves" makes you think, ''More's the pity." Here director Robert Woodruff and translator Gideon Lester won't let us just be remote spectators to the aggressively presented drag show. Like the castaways, we feel we're in an insecure place, where everyday rules have been stood on their head.

Fortunately, none of us has to go through what Iphicrate or his female counterpart, Euphrosine (Karen MacDonald), endures. The leader of the islanders is not a drag queen, it's Trivelin (Thomas Derrah), a mysterious, somewhat depressive social engineer. Like a French revolutionary, he takes pleasure in making lords and ladies atone for their mistreatment of those beneath them.

Trivelin and the divas hang out at Club Utopia, which in its dilapidated state looks more like Club Dystopia. When the aristocrats arrive, they no longer lose their heads, but merely are forced to change identities with their servants. Both Arlequin and Euphrosine's attendant, Cleanthis (Fiona Gallagher), are only too happy to step into their masters' shoes.

Woodruff gives the plot a literal Theater of Cruelty spin. Euphrosine is stripped down to her slip, given a pig's head to wear, and mounted on a spinning wheel that's given what has to be a stomach-churning turn. Iphicrate, in turn, is dolled up in Arlequin's trademark outfit and the drag queens add a wig and makeup, turning him into a sad clown who has to perform for them.

To what point? Through much of the play it seems as if Marivaux is saying there is something in the human spirit that enjoys wielding Pinteresque power over others. Given the opportunity, that's exactly what any of us would do.

Marivaux actually has more egalitarian ideals in mind. The transition in the play from fascism to democracy could seem naive, but the ART production earns its day in the sun. Woodruff, along with set and costume designer David Zinn, creates a theatrical landscape that is short on eye candy but long on making bold statements about liberty and license. Is the run-down, uninviting environment the only place Trivelin and the islanders can be free? Or will the quartet begin to create a new world out of the old?

Lester's translation lets the class struggles of both Marivaux's and our time breathe the same theatrical air. The mix of formal 18th-century prose and colloquial contemporary writing makes the 100-minute work crackle with menace and meaning.

None of this would amount to anything if the acting weren't so sharp. Derrah and the actors playing the four shipwrecked souls are phenomenal, taking their characters' hairpin changes in fate with such dexterity that our sympathies for the characters are constantly changing. I can't say that I'll be seeking out the work of the five drag queens in the months to come, but this production wouldn't be nearly as powerful without their lapel-grabbing talents.

I wouldn't want to spend my retirement on the ''Island of Slaves," but for all its discomfort, the ART makes it a great place to visit.

Ed Siegel can be reached at siegel@globe.com.

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